Robert Gray: IBD & Measuring Success by Relationships

"You can find many ways to feel depressed about being an author when you measure your success by bestseller lists and money. But if you measure it by these relationships, by time spent wandering through the unique stores, their regional sections, their staff picks, there is nothing better than being an author on book tour." --Susan Henderson

Tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day, and if I were still a frontline bookseller I would be handselling the hell out of Susan Henderson's new novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams (Harper Perennial). The narrator is Mary Crampton, a mortician in a once prosperous Montana prairie town where the population has dwindled to less than 200 due to economic changes and one particularly devastating tragedy.

She has dreams ("Secretly I think of myself as an artist.... A mortician is an illusionist.") that are tempered by circumstance ("I'd developed an expertise in my work, and staying in Petroleum allowed me to keep an eye on my father.") and habit ("You think a life is built of dreams when, really, a life is made up of daily to-do lists."). The arrival of a stranger--who isn't really a stranger--shifts her small world out of orbit.

Since The Flicker of Old Dreams is one of my favorite books this year, and I know Henderson is a passionate supporter of indies, I thought asking her a few questions would be a good way to start my own IBD celebration. So that's what I did.

"The first thing I do when I go to a person's house is stand in front of a bookshelf. Right away, I get a sense of them," Henderson told me, adding: "This is the great pleasure of walking into an indie bookstore. From the name the owners chose for the store, to how they selected and organized the books, you have an intimate look at a personality and a community's values. Sometimes it's in a dark cave, books all around you and having to walk slowly so as not to knock over piles. Sometimes deep inside that cave, you'll find an old beat-up chair and a standing lamp. I've spent whole afternoons in these colorful caves, in well-lit stores, in musty stores full of used books, stores with cats, stores with dogs, stores full of mismatched furniture and threadbare carpets. Sometimes the owner is shy and it takes several visits to have that first conversation."

Susan Henderson with Carol Hoenig at Turn of the Corkscrew.

Henderson's book tour for The Flicker of Old Dreams began with a March launch event at her home bookshop, Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine in Rockville Centre, N.Y. "How can you not love a bookstore that plays off of a Henry James classic and a love of wine?," she asked. "Turn of the Corkscrew is a gorgeous series of connected nooks that lead you to the bar and café in the back. The co-owner, Carol Hoenig, is hands on, sometimes chopping vegetables, sometimes at the cash register, and always cultivating a community. She hosts book clubs and writer workshops and events with local libraries. When she falls in love with a book, she presses it into your hands and tells you why you might love it too.... Whenever I need books, I try to order them through Carol's store because authors and bookstore owners both survive and thrive on word of mouth."

Reflecting on how The Flicker of Old Dreams has found its readers, Henderson said: "Everything about the life of my current book has come through indie booksellers, one reader and bookseller at a time." For example, she is "becoming familiar with a number of indie bookstores throughout Montana as booksellers and members of the community discover my book and bring it to the others' attention."

Susan Henderson during her event at Book Show in Los Angeles

At Book Show in Los Angeles "I was warmly greeted by Jen Hitchcock, who was enthusiastic about my book, especially the inside look at embalming dead bodies," she noted. "Walking into her store was like walking into the freak show tent at a carnival. It was quirky and comically morbid, and filled with books for misfits. Like most bookstore owners, she was a great resource for recommending a place to grab dinner."

Seth Marko, co-owner of the Book Catapult in San Diego, "hosted our discussion about the dead and dying with an audience that included people who had worked in or grown up in funeral homes and a woman who operates a local death café," Henderson said. "They are still uncovering their community as each new author event brings out another selection of locals. You see the relationships happening--I was here last week. This is my friend. These are the books we love. It was so great to see that happening in real time."

Recalling her event at Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., she said, "I'm so glad I've learned the habit of meeting the owners because they always have interesting back stories. Take Emily Hall, who had a good number of birds about the store (Megan Mayhew Bergman's Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a finger puppet of Edgar Allan Poe's raven, and excitement about Alex London's soon to be published YA fantasy, Black Wings Beating). It turns out Emily was a trainer and a naturalist at World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Mo."

"This is the great gift of visiting real life stores that were born of passion, each store as individual as the person who dreamed it into reality," Henderson observed. "No matter the city, I know where to find my tribe. And I don't just ask them for book recommendations. I also let them lead me to the coffee shops, the restaurants, the music venues, and the art and recreation of their town. Because booksellers are the creative and intellectual heart of that community. And just as word of mouth keeps books alive, word of mouth keeps these small, vibrant bookstores and their communities alive."

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives at Fresh Eyes Now)
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